Lessons from Byzantium

Tuesday, January 5th, 2010

Edward Luttwak’s new book argues that we could learn some lessons from Byzantium, a poor and weak empire that nonetheless lasted almost a millennium longer than it richer, more powerful Western Ancestor, Rome:

The Byzantines continuously relied on deterrence – any power confronting other powers must do so continuously, if only tacitly – and they routinely paid off their enemies. But they did much more than that, using all possible tools of persuasion to recruit allies, fragment hostile alliances, subvert unfriendly rulers, and in the case of the Magyars, even divert entire migrating nations from their path.

For the Romans of the Republic and the undivided empire, as for most great powers until modern days, military force was the primary tool of statecraft, with persuasion a secondary complement. For the Byzantine Empire it was mostly the other way around. Indeed, that shift of emphasis from force to diplomacy is one way of differentiating Rome from Byzantium, between the end of Late Roman history in the east, and the beginning of Byzantine history.

This difference in approach led the Byzantines to rely on cavalry rather than heavy infantry:

For the Romans, who believed in destroying enemies not wise enough to recognize the advantages of submission, the cutting and thrusting and besieging heavy infantry was the most important arm, because it could best achieve decisive results. By contrast… the Byzantines believed in containing but not destroying their enemies – potentially tomorrow’s allies. Therefore for them the cavalry was the most important arm because its engagements did not have to be decisive, but could instead end with a quick withdrawal, or a cautious pursuit that would leave both sides not too badly damaged.

What can America learn from Byzantium? NerveAgent summarizes:

America is neither Rome nor Byzantium; it has the military strength to annihilate its enemies utterly, but it is unable to exercise that power because of its own legalistic moralism, its fear of contravening international norms of state behavior, the opposition of other major powers in the system, and the irregular nature of most of its enemies. Yet it continues to proclaim maximalist objectives (e.g. the eradication of terrorism) while abiding by the constraints that prevent it from reaching those objectives, gradually exhausting itself in a vain pursuit of final victory and the End of History. If America should learn one thing from Byzantium, it is that war is eternal; to exert strenuously against a particular enemy is only to hasten decline, for a new enemy is always on the horizon.

(Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)

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